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More creative partnerships with industry proposed for Ontario’s cash-strapped colleges

For any business, this would be a formula for certain disaster: a declining customer base, falling revenues and higher expenses. Yet these are precisely the pressures squeezing Ontario’s college system, according to a new report from PwC. Fewer students are enrolling, especially in the northern colleges. Government grants have not kept pace with growing expenses, while tuitions, which represent a relatively small fraction of the colleges’ revenues, have not kept pace with inflation. Since colleges are legally bound not to run deficits, and are responsible for raising more than 50 per cent of their income, they have had to cut programs, consolidate operations, close campuses and outsource non-core services in their efforts to control costs. Staff cuts, higher tuitions, and more online education are some of the more drastic actions colleges could be forced to take as they face a cumulative funding shortfall of $1.9 billion by 2024-25, says the PwC report.

As would be expected, the colleges are appealing to Premier Wynne for more money, though the Minister of Education and Deputy Premier, Deb Matthews, has already said the government will not be bailing out the colleges. Premier Wynne may be considered to have a more sympathetic ear as it was she who was responsible for setting up an expert panel to study Ontario’s work force. One of the panel’s recommendations was that postsecondary institutions and employers should establish closer links, and that students should be made more aware of employment opportunities in the skilled trades.

That link between industry and classroom is the colleges’ raison d’être. It has been their mandate since they were set up in 1965 to provide career-oriented education, giving students the skills needed by employers. For this reason, colleges have traditionally employed a certain number of part-time teachers who continue to work in industry and specialized areas, on the assumption that their hands-on knowledge and experience would benefit students.

The emphasis on workplace learning and cooperation between the private sector and educational institutions is repeated in this Conference Board of Canada report on the skilled trades shortage in Ontario.

This is the right approach, the PwC report agrees, and it encourages the colleges to continue to seek out partnerships in their local communities so that they can provide the education and services that are relevant to employers. In a separate study on higher education in Canada, PwC came to the same conclusion, saying that institutions of higher education and industry together have the potential to “transform society,” while schools with close links to industry can attract new financing, create internship opportunities and set up advisory committees to create more industry-specific programs. Schools, the report enthuses, “should be community leaders” which “open their doors to the world.” In so doing they can pursue new educational and research opportunities that will increase their impact.

Colleges should also continue to seek out partnerships in their local communities to provide education and services that are relevant to employers. In that respect the provincial government may have a role to play in reducing barriers and allowing colleges to move “at the speed of business.” . . .  Given the fiscal constraints that colleges are facing and the limited ability of the provincial government to provide financial support, the provincial government should consider exploring developing policy guidelines that will streamline this process in particular circumstances, thus providing colleges with the ability to seek new ways to deal with their financial challenges without further burdening the public purse.

Young people tour a Tridel construction site on a B.O.L.T. Day of Discovery.

B.O.L.T. program an example of successful industry-college cooperation

One example of industry-academic partnerships and the benefits they can bring to colleges and their students can be seen in B.O.L.T., an initiative launched by condominium developer Tridel in Toronto in 2009, with the intention of giving young people greater awareness of, and more opportunities to learn about, the construction industry. In partnership with George Brown College, the B.O.L.T. program has expanded and now provides valuable postsecondary scholarships each year to deserving students, as well as mentoring programs, job shadowing experiences and training opportunities. A special Day of Discovery is held each summer when students spend a day touring a Tridel construction site and the George Brown College Centre for Construction and Engineering Technologies.

The association between the college and the builder is long-standing. In recognition of a $3 million gift from Tridel to George Brown College, the college named its construction management school after Tridel CEO Angelo DelZotto.

More programs like this are needed, according to the PwC report, and the government should streamline the process of setting them up, a process that now “hampers” colleges in their ability to quickly enter into partnerships with the private sector.

Percent distribution of residential construction employment across the 34 trades and occupations tracked by BuildForce

Fortunately, the construction industry in the GTA is currently in a strong growth position, according to Buildforce Canada, with employment gains forecast through to 2019 in residential, industrial and commercial construction. As can be seen in the chart above, the trade in highest demand by far is carpentry.

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